Don’t Ignore the Dark Side of Personality in Leadership Development

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Don’t Ignore the Dark Side of Personality in Leadership Development

By all rights we should have this down by now.  From consultancies and B-schools has come an outpouring of literature on leadership and leadership development, taking different approaches to the problem of turning promising employees into executives capable of taking charge.  Despite the avalanche of solutions, “lingering leadership crisis continues to haunt the corporations of today,” according to Conference Board researcher Robert Kramer, “and it shows no signs of abating.”

To prove this point, Hogan Assessment Systems completed a meta-analysis from 12 different sources that studied the hiring success rates for managers. The compilation consistently shows that the base success rate for the selection of successful managers is less than 50 percent.

Kramer in his article Have we learned anything about leadership development?  seemingly apologizes to the business community for this crisis. He concludes that the thousands of leadership books and articles are “a strange mixture of alchemy, romantic idealism and reason.”    With so much demand for actionable answers but so little agreement on what works and what doesn’t, it is little wonder that some practical businesspeople wish to wash their hands of the whole subject, talent shortage or no talent shortage.  Why is this happening?

One reason for the lack of consensus regarding the characteristics of good managers is that most pre employment testing and leadership assessments focus only on successes and positive attributes.  They inherently define the “bright side” of personality that affects leadership effectiveness.

That is not surprising considering that research shows that successful executives are described as smart and ambitious, with outstanding records of achievement and few faults.  Why wouldn’t any hiring manager and executive team want to look  for more of the same?  The problem lies in the data: derailed executives are also described as smart and ambitious, with outstanding records of achievement and few faults!  That’s at least up until the point when they fail.  So what separates the “men from the boys,” the winners from the losers?

Generally ignored in the analysis of pre-employment assessment and succession planning is that failure is less about lacking the “right stuff” and more about having  the “wrong stuff.”   It is not that failed managers don’t have what it takes for success but something in their make-up goes kaflooey which derails, and potentially sabotages, their careers. 

We now know that what derails managers can be traced back to common personality flaws; traits that characterize people when they are stressed and challenged beyond their comfort zone.  Dark side traits are what drove Anakin Skywalker’s (Star Wars) transformation from Jedi to Sith;  a classic example of a man going from the “bright side” to the tragic dark side of the Force. Ironically, in business these career-derailing personality flaws are referred to as the “dark side” of personality.

Everyone has a bright side and a dark side.  Bright side factors are what got people to where they are.  But it is the dark side factors that will determine if and when individuals can grow forward.   Successful managers work hard at masking their dark side. Derailed managers prefer to keep doing what they’ve always done. They relish their strengths and deny or ignore their weaknesses. Successful managers strive to learn more about their self to leverage their strengths and manage their weaknesses.

All managers have flaws. They all have experienced career set-backs.  But as people climb the management ladder, strengths can become liabilities and weaknesses might not have mattered may become important.  Consequently it is hard to pick the winners with ordinary data (resume, interview, background check) which is based on past experience.

The question then becomes: how can management and hiring managers uncover these dark side traits early? Similarly, how can they identify which aspiring managers are most prone to derailment and those who are skilled enough to mask their dark side?

Managers need insight regarding the dark side tendencies.   They need insight into potentially counterproductive dispositions and the likelihood that these tendencies might derail the high potential manager.   While most personality inventories focus on the right personalities, only a few assessments are constructed for use in the workplace that accurately identifies potential derailing traits.

The key to mitigating derailment begins with self-awareness.  Self awareness should focus on two areas: (a) how do others perceive you, and (b) what are your dark side tendencies? 

Coworker feedback, called 360 or multi-rater feedback, is the most efficient way to help managers understand how their behavior is perceived by others.  Studies have shown that managers who over-rate their own performance, compared to coworker ratings, were more likely to fail. 

360-feedback however doesn’t always reveal the dark side tendencies.  Dark side tendencies are best revealed using psychometric tests based on the Five Factor Model (FFM).     What are a few of the dark side personality factors exposed with a FFM personality test that management should be looking for? 

  • Excitability.  Highly excitable people have been rewarded  early in their careers for enthusiasm, passion, and high energy.  They work extra hard because they expect to be disappointed in relationships.  What managers first see is the hard work – that is until they feel they have been mistreated at which point they erupt – yelling, throwing things, and slamming doors.  Under pressure, they become volatile and unpredictable.  Because they feel life is not always fair, they can display a great deal of empathy, seen early on as compassion and caring.  But as responsibilities increase and challenges mount, they require a lot of personal attention and reassurance and become very hard to please.  As a result, they have difficulty building and maintaining a team.  In many organizations, an inability to recruit and retain talent can be directly traced back to “excitable” managers.
  • Skepticism.  Highly skeptical people expect to be betrayed, cheated or deceived.  They are suspicious, argumentative, and full of distrust.  Conspiracy theories can often times be traced back to the skeptic.    Because they are always looking over their shoulder, they develop keen insights into organizational politics and the hidden agendas of others.   Based on these bright side skills, they are rewarded with new responsibilities and promotion.  It is often at this point that their stubbornness and inability to compromise and trust becomes apparent others which erodes their ability to build and lead a team.
  • Cautiousness.  Highly cautious people fear being wrong.   The worst that could happen to them is being criticized, blamed, or disgraced.  They are constantly on guard against making mistakes.  To avoid criticism, they follow rules and procedures. They dot every”I” and cross every “t”.  They are deemed good “soldiers,” loyal employees protecting the company and guarding the backs of management. They are prudent and careful about evaluating risk.  But when it comes to change or innovation, forget about it.  They will resist, stall and drag their feet even when it is crystal clear that something needs to be done.
  • Reserved.  Highly reserved people have been promoted as a result of their focus and toughness in the face of adversity.  They are recognized by superiors and peers as someone who works above the fray.  They are rarely distracted by team dysfunction, interpersonal conflicts and individual agendas.  They are unfazed by criticism and rejection. Unfortunately when they are promoted into positions with more authority and responsibility, they remain insensitive to others.  Their laser focus now is perceived as being tactless, aloof, and arrogant. They communicate poorly if at all and both peers and direct reports find them unrewarding to deal with.
  • Arrogance.  Self-assurance goes hand-in-hand with confidence.  At its best, self-confident people are energetic, charismatic, leader-like and willing to take the initiative to get projects going.  Fear is a 4-letter word as they are not afraid of taking on complex and risky projects.  This confidence attracts many followers. For all the reasons just mentioned, self-confidence is a critical ingredient for success in management, sales and entrepreneurship. But a fine line exists between arrogance and self-confidence.    Arrogant people without good self-management skills expect to be admired, praised, indulged and obeyed.   They expect to be successful in everything they do. They work hard to build their own legacy.  With more authority but less control over outcomes, the dark side derailers kick in.  Past strengths become intrapersonal and interpersonal saboteurs.  They begin to take credit for more success than is warranted.  They refuse to acknowledge failure, errors or mistakes. They ultimately alienate their colleagues and subordinates.

Studies have concluded that the difference between successful and derailed managers relates to problems with influencing and developing subordinates, handling business complexity, making good staffing decisions, interpersonal insensitivity and tact, organizational savvy, integrity and composure.   These differences can be traced to dark side personality traits.   Before hiring or promoting another manager, it is critical to expose potential career derailers.  Businesses can ill-afford the high cost of hiring a Jedi but getting a Sith instead.

For more information about workforce trends and hiring and leadership selection,, contact Ira S Wolfe at 717.291.4640 or iwolfe@super-solutions.com

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